Do no harm?

In light of a gender reveal party that started a huge wildfire in California, Natasha Moore reflects on unintended consequences.

An object lesson in the law of unintended consequences: the California couple who last week started a wildfire when their gender reveal party went off course.

Gender reveal parties have come a long way from 2008, when a woman called Jenna Karvunidis (who now regrets the whole phenomenon) cut into a cake filled with pink icing to declare: we’re having a girl!

Since then, increasingly elaborate gestures have caused some terrible accidents. A woman killed in October 2019 by what was essentially a pipe bomb (meant to shower guests with coloured powder); a plane crash in Texas (the plan was to dump 1300 litres of pink water. Fun!)

Last week’s fiasco saw a “smoke-generating pyrotechnic device” start a blaze that spread over 4,000 hectares. 20,000 people were evacuated and 600 firefighters called in.

Strangely, it’s so often the harm we don’t mean to cause that we feel most guilty about.

A 17th-century Puritan once suggested that we are judged twice: once at our death, and then again after the full consequences of our lives have played themselves out.

It’s not an orthodox belief – but it’s sobering to imagine that my carbon footprint, and that shoddy bit of work, and some careless word I hardly noticed but that lodged in someone’s inner being, could ultimately be laid at my door.

“Do whatever you want – so long as you don’t hurt anybody” is Morality 101 for us. But this year has made short work of the illusion that my actions only affect me.

My words and choices can so easily start wildfires in other people’s lives. We need a much deeper understanding of the good – one that recognises us as interlocking pieces in a much bigger puzzle.